Galit Pelled’s fascination with the intelligent octopus dates back to her undergraduate days at Hebrew University in Israel where she cared for and fed the dexterous animal. Now she’s studying octopuses to see if they hold the key to restoring limb function in humans with the use of new “smart” prosthetics.

The Michigan State University neuroscientist and neuroengineer has received a $2.35 million National Institutes of Health grant to analyze the impulses that drive the infinitely complex movements of an octopuses’ eight arms. Pelled believes this research could help create prosthetics humans could control with their brains, allowing them to regain the use of their arms and hands.

“By studying the octopus, we may be able to give people back the use of their arms – to be able to pick up a cup or hold a child – which would be an amazing gift,” said Pelled, professor and director of the Neuroengineering Division at MSU’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering.

With funding from the NIH Brain Initiative Award, Pelled and her team will be studying the relatively small California octopus, four of which reside in separate saltwater tanks equipped with waterproof motion capture cameras. Using video recordings and artificial intelligence, Pelled and her team of scientists are gathering detailed information on how an octopus waves its tentacles and grabs objects.

The movement information is gathered by electrodes implanted in the octopus’ arms. Artificial intelligence software is then used to efficiently follow, analyze and characterize the animal’s motion.

Pelled expects their discoveries will be later used to control the movement of limbs.

“Each arm of an octopus contains an axial nerve that functions like a vertebrate’s spinal cord, yet with a limitless range of movement,” Pelled said. “This is why the octopus provides an unparalleled model to study central sensorimotor circuits associated with grasping behavior. If these movements can be described in mathematical terms, it may be possible to create an arm brace that a person could control with their brain.”

She said this work will help scientists study unconventional species toward the development of intelligent sensors, methods and frameworks to acquire high dimensional biological data. The NIH panel that reviewed the grant proposal described it as “exceptional and highly novel,” and “work that has the potential to inspire an entirely new field of inquiry and design.”

“The octopus is amazing in many ways,” said Pelled. “It has three hearts, blue-colored blood, it changes skin color for camouflaging and communication, and it completely regenerates its arms after injury. And now, it may give people reuse of their limbs.”

Pelled’s collaborators include Tamara Reid Bush, Adam Alessio, Xiaobo Tan and Ana Vasquez of Michigan State University; Clifton Ragsdale of University of Chicago; and Cindy Chestek of University of Michigan.